The name Shaolin kung fu has in recent years become a victim of its own fame. Once a symbol of excellence and nobility, it has become synonymous with the cheap and gaudy imitations of traditional martial arts prevalent in films and theatrical shows presented to the west.
Contrary to popular opinion, Chinese martial arts did not originate from the Shaolin Temple. Fighting arts were practiced in China, as in other parts of the world, since the dawn of civilisation. Originally beginning life as a Buddhist temple, physical exercise was first taught, if legend is to be believed, in the 6th century AD by the First Patriarch of chan Buddhism Da Mo. Seeing the monks’ poor physical condition caused by excessive meditation, he introduced a series of physical routines to reverse their decline. According to tradition the two forms he taught were the 18 Hands of Luohan and the yi jin jing (Sinew Metamorphosis). These laid the groundwork for Shaolin wushu and qi gong.
The Shaolin Temple’s nascent fighting styles first entered historical records at the start of the Tang Dynasty, when thirteen monks helped Prince Li Shi Ming defeat a rebel general and gain the throne. As the result of their bravery the new emperor granted Shaolin imperial patronage and the right to train its own army of fighting monks. It was a pivotal moment for Shaolin kung fu as it elevated the name of Shaolin greatly and ensured a continuous influx of skilled masters and willing students.
The masters who taught at Shaolin Temple would also exchange ideas and learn new skills themselves, allowing them to claim Shaolin lineage for their style. The true legacy of Shaolin was not to create kung fu but to provide a centre from which it could develop and flourish.
During the later Qing Dynasty, Shaolin took on a second significance as a symbol of Chinese resistance to the Manchurian invaders. By this time there was a Southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian as well as the original Northern Temple in Henan. Both were attacked by the Qing troops who feared their links with resistance groups. The Northern Temple survived, but the Southern Temple was destroyed, its surviving masters forced into secret societies to continue practicing their art. Their legacy would later be instrumental in the explosion of new kung fu styles in southern China during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.